Mark Ramsey Replies

Mark Ramsey has posted a response to my comments last month. Good debate here. Mark writes:

Mr. Kaye, what you don’t understand is that everything is driven by hits and stars. Everything. You are free to reach any niche audience you want, but the definition of a “revolution” is something that sweeps away the status quo. Making niches happy doesn’t qualify.

Mark’s idea of a revolution is apparently one in which mass can only be built by the combination of a small number of large players. But the same mass can be built by combining a large number of small players. There will be 50,000 podcasters by the end of 2006, and together — not individually — they will be significant. In Monday’s New York Times, “Ted Schadler of Forrester Research predicted that 12.3 million households — about 30 million people — would use podcasts by 2010.” The Diffusion group predicted nearly double that number. According to an article in the July 25 issue of Business Week by Jon Fine, only 31 million households in the US tuned into broadcast TV networks during primetime during the 2003-04 season. You don’t need to use the word “revolution,” but that’s a significant market for so-called niche content.

I’m not denying that there’s a market, however small, for every podcast, however insignificant. Of course there is. But ask your local movie theater how much they care to show a movie only a few people see, ask the local bookseller how much they want to stock a book only a few folks buy.

That’s precisely why network television viewing and ad revenues have declined 19% in the past ten years, while Netflix has grown by offering the obscure and otherwise hard-to-find movies that are filling those flat-panel home-television screens. A primary example in Chris Anderson’s original article in Wired about the long tail pointed out that Amazon generates a significant percentage of its income precisely from selling books that only a few people want to buy. Mark is correct, that a physical bookstore can’t afford to stock those books in the same way that a “broad” caster can’t afford to create and distribute programs that appeal to small numbers of people. But without broadcasting’s overhead, podcasters can create and distribute that content, and in the same was as Amazon meets the needs of millions of customers in this way, so will podcasters. Perhaps most importantly, listeners (like readers) are more passionate about what Mark calls niche content than they are about mass-media generic content, and their money will ultimately follow their passions.

I have nothing against broadcast radio. It’s terrific for news, weather, sports, call-in (anything that’s realtime) and it’s also an ideal distribution mechanism for any content that serves a geographic community (i.e., within the range of a transmitter). Here in San Francisco, for example, KQED-FM produces some excellent local programming such as Forum with Michael Krasny. I listened to it on the way home from the dentist this morning, in fact. It’s a perfect fit for realtime radio because half the show is based on call-ins.

I don’t hate radio, broadcasters or broadcasting. I don’t think radio is “evil.” I just know that podcasting has the potential of delivering the unique content that many listeners value more than they value content produced for the masses, and the money will ultimately follow that value.

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